With the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2019 coming into force, legal action can now be taken in incidents involving forcible conversion from one religion to another, state Law Minister Suresh Bhardwaj Tuesday said.
Bhardwaj said that the state Cabinet recently approved the rules of procedure framed under the new law by the home department. These rules will now govern the implementation of the law by the police, district authorities and other officials. “Amendments to these rules or to provisions of the Act can be made in the future for more effective implementation of the law,” Bhardwaj said.
The Act was passed by the Himachal Vidhan Sabha in August last year and published in the gazette following Governor’s assent in November 2019. On Friday, the state home department issued a notification saying that the Governor has appointed December 18 as the date on which the provisions of the Act come into force. The new legislation replaces a 2006 law that has been repealed by the Assembly.
This comes at a time when the Uttar Pradesh government has notified an ordinance against forcible or fraudulent religious conversion that provides for imprisonment of up to 10 years and a maximum fine of Rs 50,000 under different categories. Several other states are planning to bring in similar laws, with neighbouring Haryana saying that it has formed panel to study the Himachal law for designing its own legislation against ‘love jihad’.
Himachal Pradesh state had first passed a law against forcible religious conversion in 2006 when the government was led by Congress. The BJP government last year introduced a more stringent version of the law, which provides upto seven years of imprisonment. Bhardwaj said that Himachal was the pioneer state in introducing the law, which helps curb incidents of alleged ‘love jihad’.
According to the Act, “no person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any other person from one religion to another by use of misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, inducement or by any fraudulent means or by marriage; nor shall any person abet or conspire such conversion”.
It further says that any marriage done for the sole purpose of religion conversion may be declared null and void by a court on a petition by either party.
As per the Act, anyone who wishes to convert to any other religion will give a declaration to the district authorities at least one month in advance, specifying that one is doing so as per his/her “own volition or free consent”. In fact, even the religious priest who performs the conversion ceremony has to inform the authorities at least one month in advance. The district magistrate will then conduct an inquiry regarding the “intention, purpose and cause of proposed conversion”. The conversion will be rendered illegal if the authorities are not informed in advance. All offences under the Act are cognizable and non-bailable.